Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Elephant Man"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"


entire contents copyright 2007 by Tony Annicone

"The Elephant Man"

Reviewed by Tony Annicone

The current production at the Gamm Theatre is "The Elephant Man", the 1979 Tony Award-winning play by Bernard Pomerance. It is performed in 21 scenes without an intermission. The show ran on Broadway for 916 performances from April 19, 1979 to June 28, 1981. The lead role was originally played by Philip Anglim and later by Bruce Davison, David Bowie and Mark Hamill. It is the true story of John Merrick, a Victorian Englishman doomed by his grotesquely deformed body to life as a sideshow freak until he is befriended by a famous young surgeon. Under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves, who educates Merrick and introduces him to London society, the so-called "Elephant Man" changes from a sensational object of pity to the urbane and clever darling of the rich and famous. In Pomerance's stage play the actor playing Merrick conveys his physical deformity with his voice and body language rather than extreme makeup or speech gimmicks. The 1980 movie by David Lynch ( an original script not based on the play) might be more familiar to current day audiences due to the video version but anyone interested in seeing a well constructed drama built around gripping and emotionally engaging characters with both comic and poignant moments, is in for a splendid rendition directed by Tony Estrella which he stages beautifully with some superb performers making it into a tremendously enjoyable evening of theater at its best.

Tony's blocking of these 21 scenes with his 8 performers, is fantastic. The gray set with mirrored backing for the sideshow scenes was created by Bill Wieters while the multitude of costumes were designed and made by David T. Howard especially gorgeous are the colorful bustled women's gowns. Stage manager Stef Work keeps the action flowing constantly all night long with quick scene changes and her expert handling of coordinating the easy on and off stage props. Lighting design was by Matt Terry and the sound/music design is by Charles Cofone with some dynamite cello music for the scene changes.

Playing the lead role of John Merrick is Ben Johnson. He gives a tour de force performance in this role. Ben's contortions as this tortured, deformed young man are perfect. He gives this show the heart and soul that it needs to draw the audience into feeling his pain. Ben delivers a powerfully poignant and occasionally humorous portrayal of a man whose horrible personal plight mirrors the virtues and vices of the supposedly normal society around him. Two of the most touching scenes are when Ben as Merrick cries after having his hand touched by a woman for the first time and his death scene where he enters the doorway to heaven as a normal person. His performance rivals Bruce Davison's who I saw perform this role on Broadway back in 1980. Bravo. (Unfortunately this will be Ben's last show in RI, he will be moving to California after this show closes. Rhode Island theatre goers will sorely miss this talented young man. Break a leg and best wishes in all you do in CA.)

The moral and dramatic strength of this show is the impact that Merrick has on the people who come in contact with him. The enormous role of Frederick Treves is played by company member Steve Kidd. He sets the rules for John's living under his care while trying to be understanding, he doles out stern lectures and reprimands him along the way. Mrs. Kendall, the socially well connected actress that Treves brings to meet Merrick, is splendidly played by Jeanine Kane. She brings compassion and humor to her scenes with Merrick and also has a funny first scene with Treves before meeting Merrick when she asks about the status of his penis. Jeanine also handles the flash of nudity wonderfully when it becomes a lovely gesture to John's statement that he has never seen a women's body and his comment that it is the most beautiful sight I have seen, makes him feel like normal man would. She also plays one of the pinheads who John meets in Belgium and later on in his dream before he dies.The rest of the cast play multiple roles. The administrator of the London hospital, Carr Gomm is well played by Scott Winters who also plays a sadistic Belgian policeman who beats Merrick mercilessly with his night stick. URI theatre professor Alan Hawkridge playing two roles, is a hoot as Ross who abuses and robs Merrick, then later on wants his job back and is impressive as Bishop Howe who befriends John, bringing religion into his life. Wendy Overly handles her four roles with ease as she plays the Pinhead manager, ( a carnival wench with a patch on her eye) Miss Sandwich who is horrified when she views the Elephant Man in his bathtub, Snork, the hospital attendant and Princess Alexandra, the wife of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). Tom Gleadow and Karen Carpenter do a wonderful job with their many roles, too. ( Karen had a touch of laryngitis making her sound like Lauren Bacall.) So for a look back at the true and touching story of John Merrick in England from 1884-1890, be sure to catch this topnotch rendition of "The Elephant Man" at the Gamm Theatre.

"The Elephant Man" (6 - 7 October)
GAMM THEATRE
@ 172 Exchange Street, PAWTUCKET RI
1(401) 723-4266

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